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New York Times’ Michael Shear On The Obama Administration’s Chilling Behavior Towards Reporters

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Michael Shear of the New York Times. Hello, Michael, how are you?

MS: Hey there, good. How are you?

HH: Good. First question for you, I’ve got to go over and do Hannity tonight, and one of the questions is where was the President from 5pm on the night of September 11th through the Rose Garden appearance the next day? A) Do you know? And B) does it matter?

MS: This is following Benghazi that you’re talking…

HH: Yeah.

MS: I mean, you know, I’m not sure. I mean, that’s, the President’s whereabouts is not something that I think has been sort of the focus of that whole controversy. It’s been more focused on these talking points, though, you know, I suppose it’s a decent question.

HH: What could possibly make it newsworthy, that he didn’t care, that he didn’t go to the Situation Room, or that he did and didn’t exercise…I mean, I’m trying to get my arms around what could we possibly learn from that timeline. But yesterday, Dan Pfeiffer said, well, let me play it for you. Here’s his conversation with Chris Wallace on the Fox News Channel, cut number one:

CW: You do not know whether he was in the Situation…

DP: I don’t remember what room the President was in on that night, and that’s a largely irrelevant fact. The point is, the question is, the premise of your question is that somehow, so there was something that could have been done differently, okay, that would have changed the outcome here. The Accountability Review Board has looked at this. People have looked at it. It’s a horrible tragedy what happened, and what we have to do is make sure it doesn’t happen again.

HH: So Michael Shear, is it irrelevant what the President was doing and where he was?

MS: I mean, look, I guess the question of relevance is in some ways in the eyes of the beholder, and I certainly don’t want to be sort of taking their side. I will say this, that one of the things you get used to covering the White House is that whether the President is sitting in his villa in Martha’s Vineyard or in Hawaii on vacation, or whether they’re here at the White House, or they’re on the plane, I mean, all sorts of stuff happens kind of wherever he is. And so the question of physically where he is, I think, maybe is less important than what decisions did he make, who did he talk to, what did he say or not say privately about what was going on.

HH: I agree with that. I would like to know if after the 2am phone call, which was an 8pm phone call in Washington, between the secretary of State and with Mr. Hicks, if Secretary of State Clinton called him, and we don’t know that. And it really does go to the response of the Secretary. But is there any effort underway to get to the bottom of that, Michael? Are you curious about it?

MS: Well, sure. I’m always curious about everything, and especially this stuff that we, the behind the scenes stuff that we don’t know about. Personally, I’m not personally trying to get to the bottom of that. We have a big paper here, so maybe there are people that are. I will say this, that the question of if there is some suggestion, which I don’t think that there yet is, but if there’s some suggestion that there was some decision that had to be made, you know, imminently made, and that they needed the President’s personal decision made and they couldn’t reach him, that would be, I mean, that would be someplace where maybe you’d want to ask more questions. I don’t, I haven’t heard that, yet, but that would be one area that as a reporter, I’d want to know.

HH: Yeah, I think what I’m going to say on Hannity tonight is I think that both the secretary of State and the President went into deniability mode, that they both wanted nothing to do with what was obviously a meltdown and a fiasco. I can’t even believe she didn’t call back Mr. Hicks that night, but we’ll find out more. Let me turn to the second big story of the day, and it’s not the IRS. It’s James Rosen.

MS: Right.

HH: Now Rosen’s been a guest on this program before. I find this flabbergasting, astonishing, actually, Michael Shear. And I think if W. had done something like this, we would, we’d have motions for impeachment on the House floor from Democrats. What do you make of this story?

MS: I mean, look, as a reporter, I think it’s absolutely chilling. And I think we all operate in this city, especially, under the assumption that there are, there are certain freedoms that are guaranteed to us that aren’t guaranteed in, say, other countries, and that we, and part of that is an understanding of the recognition of the kinds of things that we in the press do, and the kinds of environments that we operate in. And what was described in that incident with Mr. Rosen is not at all what we are used, and I can just speak for myself personally, having done this for 25 years, I mean, I don’t ever think that that’s the kind of, you know, that my personal email is going to be searched, and that other things are going to be monitored. I mean, it’s just not the kind of environment that we expect to be operating in, and it’s really chilling.

HH: Now here’s my immediate reaction. If I thought for a second, and I’ve never thought about it before, that the government would snoop my emails, I would write them differently. It’s just not something I’ve ever thought about. I go back and forth with journalists all day, every day, talking about different things, and with people in the government all day, every day, looking for stories, talking to press secretaries. You know what the drill is.

MS: Yes.

HH: And so if you took two days of my email, most of it would be boring, some of it would be bring home a quart of milk, and then some of it would be yelling at the producers. And can you imagine two days of your email being in the government?

MS: Yeah, well, and look, I will confess that I do think about it sometimes, not because I feel like the government is going to be seizing it. There’s something I never expect. But I do expect, and I do think about the fact that in this day in age, with FOIA and with Freedom of Information Act and all sorts of other stuff, you’ve seen many examples of where, you know, for one way or another, reporters’ emails end up in the public. And so I do think about, like, you know, before you write something down, and before you say something that might out of context sound snippy or angry or mean or whatever, like I do give it a second thought, because I do think you have to in this day in age, where everything seems to end up on Facebook someday or another.

HH: True enough. True enough, and I’ve got that screen as well, and especially when you speak in public. Everything is always recorded. Let me ask you about this. Eric Holder said he was recused from the decision on the AP. If he says he was recused from the decision on James Rosen, but didn’t write it down, are you going to find that to be awfully convenient?

MS: You know, one of the things we do all the time is try to cut through convenient excuses. Now I don’t know, I’m not, I don’t cover the Justice Department full time. I cover the White House. But clearly, one of the things that has been frustrating to the press over the last few days, and specifically about the AP story, is that, you know, is this sense that, you know, as we’re pressing for answers, what we’re coming up against is well, that’s not, I’m not the one you have to ask, ask somebody else. And that’s been, you know, you go to the White House, and they say talk to Justice, you go to Justice, they say Holder can’t talk. And so I think that is one of the frustrating things for reporters trying to get to the bottom of these stories, is the kind of, that picture of the guy with the arms twisted, and both hands pointing in opposite directions, not being…

HH: Yeah, now there are two leaks thus far – the leak of the Yemen, and the leak of the North Korean. Both resulted in intrusive impositions on the press. Do you suppose we are going to find that whenever there has been a leak that the Obama administration has gone after the press, because typically, a leak investigation, 45 seconds, Michael Shear, you go after the leaker, not the leakee.

MS: I think what is very clear in a very quick way is that this administration has been more aggressive at pursuing both sides, both the leaker and the leakee, I guess, if you want to put it that way, the reporter and the leaker, both sides. This administration has been far more aggressive than past administrations doing that.

HH: And do you expect there are more?

MS: I suppose there probably are. I mean, to some extent, these things are secret until they’re not secret, but sure, I expect there’s no reason to believe that the pattern of behavior that is public isn’t continued in other ways.

HH: I agree. I think you’ve been snooped, Michael Shear. I think you and John Burns had better start checking your emails, because I think the government’s got them.

MS: We’d better check our emails to each other, right?

HH: Michael Shear from the New York Times, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, Michael.

End of interview.

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